Making the strange one’s own


Stephan Lessenich


On Roland Fischer’s collective portrait ‘Refugees’


The stranger is strange – only in a strange land?

Roland Fischer portrays refugees. Last year a great number of them arrived in Germany: people we did not know existed.
People who had to leave their countries. They are now here, among us. Roland Fischer shows them as they are. Or how they present themselves. How they appear to us. Up close. And yet strange.

But why are strangers strange to us? Georg Simmel, one of the sociology’s seminal figures, has coined the difference between ‘the stranger’ and ‘the guest’: while a guest comes and goes, the stranger comes and stays. In staying he remains foreign to us. That is not so because he or she possessed certain physical features: a different colour of skin or hair, for example. The reason
is not that he or she follows different customs: manners and habits that differ from ours, be it in eating and drinking, thinking and believing, doing and eschewing. The stranger is not alien to us because he is different. But because he is suddenly simply there. And because he would like to stay. Because he is not a temporary guest but wants to be a permanent fellow resident.

The outlandish practice of the stranger does not consist in his coming and going. It is the coming and not-wanting-to-leave.
It is the combination of coming and staying that does not fit the mould, that does not fit our image of coexistence. We live together with those who are here. Those who were already there when we arrived. That somehow have ‘always’ been there. Whoever arrives after we have already been here is new. He does not fit the mould but is an irritation. The stranger does not
fit: he does not fit in, does not fit the rest, does not fit in with us. OK, whatever does not fit will be made to fit: the new arrival should adapt to those who have always been there. But that is not acceptable to us, either: it is disconcerting if someone only pretends to be part of something, to have always been part of it. As if anyone could become ‘one of us’.

‘Strange is the stranger only in a strange land’, says a well-known witticism by Karl Valentin. On the one hand, the aphorism seems logical, even tautological: where else is a stranger supposed to be strange than in a strange country? Certainly not ‘at home’. And if the strange country becomes home, if the strange land assimilates him, or he it, then the land is no longer
strange – and he no longer a stranger. On the other hand, we ask: is that actually correct? How can people say they feel like ‘strangers in their own country’? How can that which is our own become alien? And cannot the stranger remain alien to as
well as an alien in his newly adopted country, his ‘new home’? Is that not much more likely? And what exactly would be problematic about it?

What irritates us about the strange, the odd, the other? Why do we struggle so much with stranger anxiety? Why do we want
to make the alien our own but not let our own become alien? Why would we rather ‘keep to ourselves’, be at one with us, be identical to ourselves and others? The strange is not only the other but also the unprecedented, that which has not been present before in this form. The stranger arrives and suddenly ‘everything’ is different. The stranger changes something. He changes
our world and our life. The stranger brings change – and it is not the other or the specifically different that constitutes the core of our unease, of our alienation towards the stranger. Rather, it is the change in and of itself. The stranger symbolises change. He makes it palpable. He embodies it. He has changed himself by leaving some other place before coming here.

‘I want a change’, that is the usual, market-compatible semantic in the late-modern world and its structurally enforced self-marketing. And yet that is not true at all: we do not a change, not a bit of it. We actually want to remain the same. Thus we stay ‘who we are’. Or who we think we are.


The refugee in the active society

The social relations of the late modern age we mentioned before demand something else, however. They call for initiative and innovation, movement and mobility, activity and flexibility. We live in the age of the active society: what is needed is the human being in motion. The character of the ‘entrepreneur’ is the social role model of our time: tackling problems, investing in the future, not being averse to risk – these are the qualities society values. If successful, they are the features of the active citizen which reap material rewards. Everybody is an entrepreneur, constantly prepared to take responsibility for him- or herself, for
her own existence, for her own advancement – that is the socially dominant and politically established expectation of us all.

For at least a decade ‘activating’ has been the central idea of political intervention in social relations in this country. The idea is not to leave any room for social passivity. The political appeals to the active subject range from ‘promoting and demanding’
the independent preparation of employability as well as private old-age and health provision to the daily litany of praise about individual ‘self-reliance’ and civic ‘commitment’. What counts in such a society is the individual motion for the benefit of one’s self-improvement and societal progress. Standing still is a retrograde step, passivity is death – whereas activity means life, motion is the sign of the times. We live in a society of permanent general mobilisation.

Against this background the more recent political debates surrounding migration and flight, the admission and integration of refugees must seem astounding. After all, the ‘refugee’ – he who comes and stays for the foreseeable future because he cannot
or will not return – is the social prototype of the active subject. He is the embodiment of the ‘entrepreneurial self’, which the German sociologist Ulrich Bröckling has described and analysed in great detail. Tackling problems, investing in the future, not being averse to risk: who could represent these character traits and behavioural orientations more convincingly and more impressively than the fleeing and the refugee? To leave one’s accustomed environment, to go for broke, literally to risk one’s life for the hope of a better one – all that should constitute a beacon of hope for all those who publicly deplore either a lack of ambition in people or the structurally closed paths of social mobility.

Needless to say that such praise for the refugee – as a role model of self-reliance and responsibility, as an everyday hero of the active society, as the epitome of the entrepreneurial self – has not been forthcoming. On the contrary, as a rule the refugee is held to be a burden and a threat, even a visitation. Refugees stand for the signature tune of our times: for mobility and the necessity to move, for the end of comfort zones and jumping in at the deep end, for the coercion to risk-taking and the possibility of failure – even of ultimate, existential failure.

The fleeing and the fled bring change to us. They bring the shifting world with them to our doorstep. They bring the society of motion and mobility, of flexibility and activity to face up to itself, as it were. It is a society, it turns out, that does not care much for itself: with the pure form of its self-description, the shape of its self-knowledge exaggerated to the extreme of an active society, it reveal its doubts about itself. What is more, it reveals that it hates itself. This society projects its resentment of the demand to constantly improve itself not onto the apologists of the general social mobilisation but on the protagonists of the enforced mobility. The rejection of the refugee is the rejection of the transient: a helpless rebellion against the loss of the world as we knew it and against the changes forced on us.


The chasms of the achievement-oriented society

Faced with societal resistance against the alien we usually argue with the topos of fear. It might be the wide-spread defensive mechanisms against immigration and the admission of (always ‘too many’) refugees or it might be the demand for ‘caps’ on admission. What we suspect behind these is the locals’ fear of what is strange to them or even the fear of social decline in large parts of the population. The middle classes, it is often argued in such cases, fear for their jobs and their social security. The putatively ‘unfettered’ access of refugees fuels their concern of sliding from the social strata of assured wealth into those – in the formulation of French sociologist Robert Castel – of material precarity and social vulnerability.

Often it is conceded at this point that it is not an objective threat to their income or prosperity that fans the fears of the majority of the middle and upper classes. Rather, it is the subjective emotion of an imminent decline, the sense of fear of a worsening of their situation that does. On closer examination there are hardly any such cases that are truly about an absolute decline in living standards: about diminishing disposable income, a restriction of consumption or necessary material sacrifice or self-denial. Instead discontent and unease feed on – real or imagined – anticipation of relative losses, on the idea that others are catching up in a material sense or in the sense of a social hierarchy. And in a way that is not justified.

Long before its current form of an active society modern communities understood themselves in terms of achievement or performance. In such achievement-oriented societies social positions are awarded on merit – at least that is the way these societies like to describe themselves. The social hierarchy of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ thus mirrors objective, or at least objectifiable, differences in accomplishment or merit – and is held to be just and acceptable in precisely that sense. In the current German debate the fear of social decline is, in this light, rather an aversion to a possible shift in the criteria for social positioning and placement: he who achieves a lot is supposed to be better off than those who achieve less, little or nothing at all. This principle is to remain in force at all costs.

The rejection of possible rises in position of previously underprivileged groups – and the corresponding loss of some of one’s own privileges – is a structural phenomenon of self-declared achievement-oriented societies. The devaluation and (attempted) ostracism of ‘strangers’ is nothing new in this context – at least it is not an attitude that is limited to immigrants. Among the ‘strangers’ of the so-called meritocracy are also the unemployed, the homeless, the drug-addicts and those in need of care. The denigration of unemployed people as shirkers or ‘benefit scroungers’, the often violent assaults on homeless ‘dossers’, discussions of the value of the life of severely disabled people and the admissibility of euthanasia or ‘assisted dying’ for the old and the infirm, the aversion against allegedly ‘anti-social’ environments and life forms – all this is an expression not of fear for one’s own social decline but rather of a hatred for the other in a meritocracy.

How else could we explain the attacks on the weakest and the revilement of the most disadvantaged but most of all the massive and sometimes aggressive reservations regarding the support they receive from society – in one of the richest societies in the world –, if not by a perceived insult: the humiliation of the ‘achieving’ community by the underachieving minorities, of the creative and law-abiding by the unproductive and the self-indulgent, of those residents with older rights by the newcomers and jumped-up people? To the syndicate calling itself a meritocracy nothing inhuman is alien. In such a society only the strangers are strange.


Role model Germany: strength lies in the middle

In Germany that is the case in a particular and specific manner. With the responsibility for the biggest crime in world history committed by single society in mind (or at least in some sense hanging over our heads) the ‘economic miracle’ and the ‘security state’ in West and East Germany respectively served their post-war societies as collective, post-national socialist prostheses of self-worth. In West Germany the economic re-emergence, the incessantly growing prosperity and the success story of the ‘social market economy’ became the core identity of a federal republic that otherwise left little room for patriotism and national fervour. This social model was eventually imposed on the capitulating inner-German competitor system. The social psychologist Oliver Decker interprets the West German narrative of growth, welfare and economic strength as a ‘narcissistic filling’: a society idolises its immense socioeconomic productivity in order to cope with its monstrous civilisatory destruction or, in Decker’s metaphor, to fill the resulting identitarian cavity.

The German model of growth, welfare and economic strength was, for perhaps half a century, the source not only of social identification but also of a collective sense of superiority. This was the superiority complex the five ‘new federal states’ were made to feel after 1990. Their unhoped-for accession to the German success story elicited defence mechanisms in a significant part of the West German population that make a reappearance today: reservations concerning a possible overextension of the economic capacity, misgivings about possibly too generous distribution of welfare benefits to the new citizens, unease about an externally enforced end of the comfort of what became known as the ‘Bonn Republic’. The West German superiority gesture, which has expanded, meanwhile, into the bearing of reunified Germany and heightened further to a hint of aggressiveness by the nouveaux riches among the former East Germans, who thereby compensated their own inferiority complex and their humiliating experiences, was wielded, first of all, during the Euro crisis against ‘the Greeks’. Diligence and frugality, productivity and abstention from consumption, simple calculations and double-entry accounting – those inappropriately buoyant and frivolous South Europeans were to take a leaf out of the book of German social and administrative virtues. Team Dr. Schäuble sends its regards.

And now, after the ‘whinging Ossis’ and the ‘lazy Greeks’, we have the refugees. It is always the same parlour game: the hasty invoking of ‘breaking points’, to be reached imminently or already passed; the polyphonic chorus of suspicion that the benefit entitlements for non-Germans provide additional incentives for immigrants; the concern for the ‘flourishing landscapes’ in the West and – if they exist – even in the East that will be trampled down by the refugees. Our peace of mind has been disturbed, our work devalued, our wealth imperilled – our well-deserved, hard-won place in the sun is to be populated with masses of self-indulgent and uncivilised nonentities, perfect strangers. They have walked here and acquired a status of potentially staying, as ‘strangers’ therefore. This obviously has to be destroyed, or at least deconstructed: from Frauke Petry to Boris Palmer, from Markus Söder to Sarah Wagenknecht the ‘stranger’ has unanimously been declared ‘a guest’, someone who comes – and leaves again. And as quickly as possible, please. If there be doubt, then as soon as he ‘has forfeited his guest right’.


The world a guest of – a schizophrenic people

Sometimes there is no need for sociology to explain the social world. Sometimes the world does that very well all on its own. Faced with an escalating ‘refugee crisis’ Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then NATO secretary general, called the societies communitised in the Western defence alliance ‘an island of security, stability and prosperity’ – obviously surrounded by a sea of uncertainty, flux and poverty. Indeed, a sociology of the divided international community could not have expressed it any better. The defence official made them out to be islanders, but what they experience is an encounter of the high seas: suddenly waves of global economic problems crash onto their shores – literally and materially, namely when the rubber dinghies or fishing boats have not sunk in the Mediterranean but somehow manage reach the coasts of Lesbos or Lampedusa.

On the island of security, stability and prosperity this causes excitement, (abstract) fear of the new and (concrete) rejection of the new. Everything is supposed to remain as it was – and everyone remain where they were. For stability and prosperity, security and order are not to be disturbed, if you please: that is the dearest wish and the highest goal of the islanders. The more they (think they) have to lose the more intense the rejection and the fear. For example in Germany where people thought they had found their centre of gravity in prosperity – and the ‘middle class’ embodied precisely that centre. It was a country that imagined itself – in the words of the sociologist Helmut Schelsky – to be a ‘levelled middle class society’ shortly after the devastations of the Second World War. Today it is a country where nearly everybody thinks of themselves as being at the ‘middle’ of society. It is a country which, despite it general orientation towards the centre-ground, still, and quite paradoxically, wants to be in the lead: ‘world champion in exports’, ‘world champion in tourism’, ‘world champion in donations’ and ‘world champion in energy revolution’: if we cannot be world champions it is hardly worth our while.

That ‘mediocrity and delusion’ can go together was already known to Hans Magnus Enzensberger in the late stages of the old West Germany. Since then this connection of social identity has only grown tighter: to remain oneself somehow and not attract too much attention, yet at the same time to be in the vanguard. We want to be ‘normal’ and something special at the same time, while also trying to prevent others from becoming what we are. That is the ambiguous, sometimes even schizophrenic, state of mind of this nation: we revel in pleasant superiority, fearing the end of our exceptionalism. We pretend to be the role model for successful communisation while turning our backs on the attempts of others to participate in our economic miracle works. And we picture, in the agreeable thrill of hubris turned catastrophe, the whole world to be our guest. Our guest – but not to make friends.

The world, however, is already here. And it will stay. One part of it will make this country their home, if all goes well. They will remain alien to us. Another part will stay and then leave nevertheless, possibly to return home. They will perhaps feel like strangers there. To be a stranger in one’s own country is no contradiction. Neither is it a calamity. At least not necessarily. Maybe it is the mode of existence of our times, the social life form of the ‘global age’. Maybe strange is the new mode of being one’s own. And perhaps that is for the best.


Stephan Lessenich is professor for the sociology of social developments and structures at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. Having grown up in Spain, he studied political science, sociology and modern history in Marburg and gained his PhD at the university of Bremen. From 1994 to 2004 he taught at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and from 2004 to 2014 at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. He is the president of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie and spokesperson ‘Global Capitalism and the Dynamics of Inequality’ at the Center for Advanced Studies at LMU Munich.